In 1996, writing in The New Yorker magazine, the great American playwright Arthur Miller discussed his feelings about the McCarthy era while watching his play on the subject, The Crucible, being filmed. The article was published some 40 years after Miller’s own appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and it’s a fascinating read, but I quote here a passage that showcases a haunting rhyme with the creative climate of today’s America:
“The Soviet plot was the hub of a great wheel of causation; the plot justified the crushing of all nuance, all the shadings that a realistic judgment of reality requires. Even worse was the feeling that our sensitivity to this onslaught on our liberties was passing from us?indeed, from me. In “Timebends,” my autobiography, I recalled the time I’d written a screenplay (“The Hook”) about union corruption on the Brooklyn waterfront. Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, did something that would once have been considered unthinkable: he showed my script to the F.B.I. Cohn then asked me to take the gangsters in my script, who were threatening and murdering their opponents, and simply change them to Communists. When I declined to commit this idiocy (Joe Ryan, the head of the longshoremen’s union, was soon to go to Sing Sing for racketeering), I got a wire from Cohn saying, ‘The minute we try to make the script pro-American you pull out.’ By then?it was 1951?I had come to accept this terribly serious insanity as routine, but there was an element of the marvellous in it which I longed to put on the stage.”
It is in this sense that our own times feel so dispirting, so stifled of nuance. When Miller wrote The Crucible, he used the 17th century witch trials in Salem, MA to illustrate his own understanding of American life in the McCarthy era. And now, history has looped back on itself once again. George Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov have taken a page out of Miller’s book and used the history of the McCarthy-era HUAC hearings to create as powerful and important an American film as has been made in the past five years, Good Night, And Good Luck.
Good Night, And Good Luck is the story of CBS news man Edward R. Murrow (an Oscar-worthy David Strathairn) and his decision to use his news program See It Now to advocate for Consitutional reason in an age of red-scare insanity. Murrow’s pleas for justice are met with a swift and dramatic response from not only McCarthy, but the top brass at CBS and the network’s advertisers and sponsors. Despite McCarthy’s own censure in the Senate, Murrow would be forced into network obscurity for “losing money”, but that wouldn’t last either; although not in the film, we know that Murrow would go on to produce an international politics show called Small World until his departure from CBS in 1961. He died of lung cancer in 1965.
To Tell The Truth: George Clooney as CBS News producer Fred Friendly and David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in Clooney’s Good Night, And Good Luck
The film itself is a stylistic leap from Clooney’s previous directorial work in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and features a prowling, ‘direct cinema’-style camera that is constantly combing the crowded interiors of the CBS newsroom and the tiny set where Murrow delivers his stinging political critiques. The absolutely gorgeous black and white cinematography (by Robert Elswit) is complimented by an evocative jazz score, performed by a luminous Dianne Reeves. The tone is set immediately, and despite the thematic and geographic differences, I couldn’t help but think of the opening of Woody Allen’s Manhattan; the elegaic black and white shots of a black tie reception and the longing of the music establish the period perfectly. Strathairn is unbendingly committed to inhabiting the speech and physical demeanor of Murrow (as well as his good-humored seriousness), and the gravity of his performance gives weight to the political ideas that are central to the film.
There is no mistake to be made; Good Night, And Good Luck is to the Bush Administration’s policies in a post-9/11 world what The Crucible was to the McCarthy era. The parallels are clearly highlighted in Murrow’s numerous speeches, but Clooney isn’t interested in simply blaming the man on top; the finger is clearly pointed at the media, the uneasy marriage between corporate interests and the editorial policies in a free press, and the personal price paid by those who dare to ask questions of men in power. The film details this battle without the epic sweep of a film like Michael Mann’s The Insider, instead focusing on the broadcasts themselves (and the newsroom in particular) as the forum in which these ideas are articulated. There are very few exteriors in the film, no shots of Murrow at home with the family, or of Mr. and Mrs. America reading the headlines in disgust (save a single shot late in the film). Instead, archival footage of McCarthy himself, in hearings and in interviews, is utilized to great effect and the cramped CBS newsroom is the dramatic centerpiece of the story; this is not a film about the social issues of the early 1950’s, it is instead a film about making news and challenging authority because it is one’s job.
But who has that job today? Despite questioning the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, there has been far too little investigation by the press, and far too little access granted by the federal government, of the U.S.’s war on terror or the war in Iraq. Clooney’s film is as articulate a plea for inquiry as can be made; Murrow’s own questioning of McCarthy’s tactics was based on his personal credibility as a fair-minded defender of the Constitution. Without a press independent of ideological apologists who seek only to shill a party line at the expense of actual reportage, the government, regardless of who is in power, is free to dismiss media inquiry into its practices as ideological posturing. The same happenes to Murrow in Good Night, And Good Luck, and it is only because popular culture rejected McCarthy’s tactics that he was forced to end his witch hunt. In the conservative echo chamber that passes for newsgathering today, a man like Murrow might throw up. What broadcaster would go on national television today and say what Edward Murrow said on his See It Now program, March 9, 1954:
“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep into our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular… There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities… We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”
In recent years, Soviet files have been unearthed showing that, indeed, the Communist Party had made serious strides in infiltrating our national government. Some would use this as justification for McCarthy’s tactics, probably the same people who were defending the use of torture on prisoners held without trial, some of whom may be responsible for brutal, indefensible acts of terror. But at what cost to our freedom and the freedom of the innocent people, suffering in unconstitutional bondage? That we can point to no one in our country with the courage to rigorously question the Constitutionality of federal policies is a great tragedy and this is precisely the spirit of Clooney’s film, of Murrow’s work, and of what we need so desperately in our culture right now. Whether the America will respond by seeing and discussing the film, well, I certainly have my my doubts. But you can’t doubt the work itself; Good Night, And Good Luck is essential.